Special Report

TV Old Ideas New Packages

Andrew Clark September 27 1999
Special Report

TV Old Ideas New Packages

Andrew Clark September 27 1999

TV Old Ideas New Packages

Special Report

Andrew Clark

Every Canadian knows that autumn brings three constants with it—school, hockey and a new season of TV shows. At school, students learn something new each year (or so parents hope), while hockey invariably offers its share of surprises. On television, no matter how much the networks crow about their new fall lineups, viewers learn the same lesson over and over: never underestimate TV's ability to serve up the same product in a different package. What can Canadians expect on TV in 1999? Well, the new season is bound to produce a handful of shows that appear from nowhere and become enormous hits, like 1998 s teen smash Felicity. Of course, there will also be network favourites that viewers reject. Remember Cupid? No? Nobody does, except the executive who OK’d the series. Perhaps most predictably, everyone will agree that TV is dreck—and then turn around and watch a lot of TV.

Unlike previous fall launches, the 1999 season is tinged with a North American identity crisis. Television execu-

The fall TV season has the usual closes of clogged detectives, backstabbing big shots and wisecracking kids

tives everywhere sense change, but they cannot read the audiences mood swings. Mainstream networks are trying to look like cable channels, serving up shows with sexually explicit plots and profanity. Or they have opted to create new series by spinning off established franchises. And the teen explosion that began with Dawsons Creek and Felicity continues to grow, with a plethora of pimply programs such as Freaks and Geeks. Canadian networks, meanwhile, are focusing on serious one-hour dramas and movies of the week. Canadian specialty channels are hoping to attract bigger audiences with so-called docusoaps. And American cable channels, ironically, are trying to look like the networks. A&E and HBO, for instance, are producing more bigbudget mainstream movies and mini-series.

Public broadcasting in Canada continues to suffer from a host of ailments. Specialty channels, generally owned by private broadcasters such as CTV and Can West Global, are eating away at the CBC’s audience. Added to this attri-

tion are cuts administered by a federal government seemingly obsessed with carving up Canada’s national broadcaster. The CBC’s staff has already been cut to the bone and further job reductions are rumoured for November. As a result, the CBC is offering no new marquee series. Last year, in contrast, the network launched Da Vincis Inquest and Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy, which both attracted critical praise.

That said, the returning shows are strong. Made in Canada, Rick Mercer’s satire of life in the Canadian film business, is back for 13 more episodes. The series picks up the exploits of film executive Richard Strong (Mercer) as he tries to climb to the top of the sordid heap. It is rich with perverted children’s-show hosts, Hercules rip-offs, Hollywood cults and libidinous studio heads. Established stage actor Dan Lett

is hilarious as Victor, the sycophantic studio vice-president. Mercer continues to be the sharpest satirist in Canadian TV comedy.

Da Vincis Inquest, CBC’s outstanding series chronicling a coroners investigations, will be back, although not until November. Producer Chris Haddock has created a one-hour program that beats any crime drama north, or south, of the border. Canadian veteran Nicholas Campbell delivers a sublime performance as the cynical, Vancouverbased crime-solver. The CBC is also airing Cover Me, a six-episode miniseries from producer and former Alliance head honcho Robert Lantos. It follows the adventures of two detectives, one a French-Canadian woman from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the other an Anglo male from the RCMP.

Together they stalk terrorists, discuss national unity and still find time for the occasional romantic tryst.

In the private sector,

CTV is moving Power Play and The City from their previous time slots to join Cold Squad on Friday night. Its the networks attempt to brand the evening as its Canadian niche, in the hope the grouping will make it easier to hold viewers. This year is the make-or-break season for all three shows. The City has an international distribution deal and this should shift its focus from last year, when most of its plots were anchored in Toronto’s underbelly. In other words, more upper-crust bed hopping and less social-policy posturing. Power Play has yet to fully connect with its intended core audience—hockey fans. But the continued influence of writer Paul Quarrington {Whale Music), who has a deft touch with dialogue and an indepth understanding of the sport, should bolster its appeal. And Cold Squad returns with a new cast—only its star (Julie Stewart) is back.

CTV is also investing heavily in TV

Ordinary people, everyday heroes

The girl giggles as her stricken parents carry her to an elevator. Since birth, the two-year-old has needed a liver transplant, and the family has just had another consultation with her doctor. But the news was not good: their wait for a donor will continue. Nearby, a TV crew is there to capture how they are coping. Welcome to Little Miracles, a nonfiction chronicle of life at Toronto’s worldfamous Hospital for Sick Children.

The 13-episode, half-hour weekly program, which Life Network will begin showing on Sept. 20, is one of

two Canadian hospital “docu-soaps” premièring this fall. The other, Downtown Angel, which has its debut on the Discovery Channel on Oct. 6, takes viewers into St. Michaels Hospital, also in downtown Toronto. Docu-soaps tell the stories of real people in episodic form.

Little Miracles finds drama in the relationships it portrays, relationships between parents and children, between doctors and patients. “You would think that most of the drama takes place in the trauma unit, but it doesn’t,” says executive producer Ron Singer. “It takes place in the everyday moments, people coping

with these challenges. They are everyday heroes.”

Successful docu-soaps are grounded in delicate, non-exploitative partnerships between the filmmakers and their subjects. The participants must feel comfortable with those recording their lives and that requires tremendous self-restraint on the part of the crew. Production teams from both Little Miracles and Downtown Angel worked closely with hospital administrators and agreed to halt filming at any time the hospital requested. Although neither institution received a fee for its participation, their staffs see a benefit in the exposure. “A series that ran in England brought out an awareness of the hospitals they portrayed,” says Dr. Alan Goldbloom, vice-president of academic and clinical development at the Hospital for Sick Children. On both Canadian series, patients were first approached by a hospital official, and if they agreed to co-operate, were included in filming. “It is not Cops! says Downtown Angel executive producer Garry Blye, referring to the U.S. syndicated real-life crime show. “It is not reaching for the lowest common denominator.”

The power of Little Miracles and Downtown Angel comes from the awareness that most people have of their own fragility. It is impossible to watch either series without feeling fear followed by a wave of relief.

Even the crews found the process gruelling. The producers of Little Miracles provided their directors and camera crew with weekly counselling. “We try to check in on each other and see how we’re doing,” says Singer. “We have to keep track of each other and keep reminding ourselves, this isn’t about dying. It’s about living.”

Andrew Clark

movies. In 1997, it established a $6-million fund for new Canadian programming. The first of these CTV Signature Presentations, The Sheldon Kennedy Story, about the hockey player who went public with allegations of sexual abuse, airs on Oct. 3. CTV will also broadcast a series of murder mysteries based on Regina author Gail Bowen’s single-mom-turned-detective Joanne Kilbourn (Wendy Crewson). 7/V Judas Kiss, which does not yet have a broadcast date, is a ripped-from-the-headlines flick based on the story of RCMP Const. Patrick Kelly, who was convicted in 1984 of murdering his wife. Playing against type, Due South hunk Paul Gross portrays Kelly.

Global is offering no new Canadian series. The network is bringing back the Canadian/British animation series

Bob & Margaret, along with Traders, its homage to Bay Street greed. Global continues to place an emphasis on cherry picking edgy American series and producing documentaries.

Despite the improving quality of many Canadian programs, the biggest hits still tend to come from the United States. The two most engaging American series—Action, from The Larry Sanders Show executive producer Chris Thompson, and The West Wing from A Few Good Men screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—both reflect a cable sensibility. Think of them as the anti-Friends. There are no gangs of good-looking

guys and gals, no pet monkeys. Action (Fox, Global) follows the exploits of a self-absorbed Hollywood producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) as his career is crashing. He turns for help to two unlikely confidants: a former childstar-turned-whore (Illeana Douglas) and a narcoleptic uncle (Buddy Hackett). Peppered with profanity, which is bleeped out, the series pushes network ethics codes (even Foxs) beyond their barriers with partial nudity, drugs and waiters urinating in salads. A lurid winner, it is intelligent, cutting and nasty.

The West Wing (NBC, CTV), gives American viewers the White House they want to believe exists. There isn’t a charming southern president with a penchant for interns in sight. Instead, this president (Martin Sheen) makes his very first appearance quoting the Ten Commandments. Don’t hold the fact that it is one of the season’s most heavily hyped new shows against it. Sorkin, who last year launched the critically acclaimed series Sports Night, has crafted a compelling show. Plots swirl around issues uppermost in the minds of many Americans, including abortion, gun control and public

The best new shows take viewers inside the movie business or into the White House

education. It also features a talented ensemble cast, including Rob Lowe, the 1980s heartthrob who has political credentials of a sort: he was videotaped having sex with two women in an Atlanta hotel room at the 1988 Democratic convention. Lowe survived the scandal and eventually resurrected his career in Mike Myers’s Wayne’s World and Austin Powers movies. Lowe, 35, who plays Sam Seaborn, the president’s spin doctor, gives some of his most thoughtful performances in The West Wing. “He’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and has dedicated his life to

Canadian networks are focusing on serious one-hour crime dramas and murder mysteries of the week

achieving a certain level of success,” says Lowe. That pretty much describes the tone of the entire show.

So much for originality. In many instances, nervous producers are going with proven franchises, making spinoffs the cornerstone of their lineups. Time of Your Life (Global, Fox) is a New York City-based, one-hour drama built around Party of Five character Sarah Reeves (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Reeves, who was adopted as a child, heads to the Big Apple to find her birth father. Love and laughs abound. The most calculated spin-off is David E. Kelleys Ally (Fox, CTV), a half-hour

version of the hit one-hour series Ally McBeal, which follows the trials and tribulations of the rake-thin Boston lawyer (Calista Flockhart). More appropriately entitled Ally Lite, the series will appeal to only the most Allyobsessed members of society. (As that describes nearly one million people in Canada, the show could do all right.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, Space) fans have another ghoulfest to sink their teeth into. Angel charts the nocturnal wanderings of Buffy s intensely hunky 244-year-old boyfriend, Angel. The

undead do-gooder races around urban settings kicking vampire butt, The most tighdy structured show on television, Law & Order, is spinning off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

(NBC, CTV). Featuring even more heinous criminals than the original, the spin-off looks at the aftershocks of crime. Dann Florek, who was in Law & Orders early seasons, returns to head up a terrific cast, including Homicides Richard Beizer and Dean Winters, who has a recurring role on the prison drama Oz.

For both conspiracy theorists and fans of The X-Files, the word Roswell conjures up one of the great coverups of all time: the alleged 1947 crash landing of a UFO outside Roswell, N.M. The enduring myth maintains that the feds found live aliens at the site and hid the truth about them. Now, there’s a teen show based on that premise: Roswell. But where old-fashioned aliens used to suck brains and try to destroy the human race, Roswell's aliens just want to go to the prom. Hero Max Evans (Jason Behr) gets his kicks healing girls by placing his quivering hand upon their hearts and looking longingly into their eyes with a strong (yet vulnerable) gaze. Roswell (Fox, CTV) will appeal to teens, many of whom already feel like aliens or believe their parents originate from another solar system.

The season’s best teen show is Freaks and Geeks, a series set in 1980s Michigan. Its heroes are nervous and earnest (read: regular teens), trying to find identities while achieving the highschool holy grail—popularity. Freaks and Geeks (NBC, WIC-ONtv) also

taps into the burgeoning popularity of 1980s nostalgia. Kids are bored with the 1970s. Get ready for a bout of punk rock, soundtracks featuring tunes from obscure bands like Kajagoogoo, and penny loafers. But by avoiding high-school clichés, Freaks and Geeks goes beyond the usual teen fare and stands on its merits as drama.

That’s the fall. After a long cold winter, spring, then summer, will arrive, bringing flowers, romantic thoughts and mid-season replacements. The networks will announce that, while their fall line-ups were big successes, they have corrected whatever mistakes they might have made. Viewers will forget the bombs, and focus on the hits. Everyone will agree that TV is dreck—and then watch a lot more of it—until next fall rolls around, when hope will once again spring eternal. 03